Terence Davies is a man of keen intellect and mordant wit who describes himself as one of life’s observers. His films, THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, his semi-autobiographical DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES, and OF TIME AND THE CITY, his documentary tribute to his hometown of Liverpool, which used Dickinson’s poetry as part of the narration, reflect that quality, allowing us to experience life as a not uninterested observer, carefully noting the rich details of the character’s existence that Davies presents to us In A QUIET PASSION, he introduces us to Emily Dickinson, played by Cynthia Nixon in one of the year’s great performances, as the eccentric poet with a rich inner life who never ventured more than a dozen miles from her home in Amherst, MA.
When I spoke to Davies by phone at his home in England on May 3, 2017, my first question was about what it was about a 19th-century American female poet that so spoke to him.
We went on to talk about the religious climate of the times; Davies’ dialogue seamlessly meshes the marvel of 19th-century speech and Dickinson’s verses while also highlighting the poet’s sense of humor; her spiritual struggles, particularly the meaning and implications of the soul; the Gettysburg Address as poetry, not politics; and Davies’ despair about the unfairness of a genius not being recognized in his or her lifetime; and where he’d like his ashes to spend eternity.
We finished up with a discussion of what biographers bring to their subject; how his own family influenced the film; working with Dickinson scholars on a film that takes some liberties with historical truth; his Catholic guilt (felt even though he’s an atheist) over a missing thirty-second or so; and how the cinematography so beautifully externalizes Dickinson’s world view.
We finished up with Davies talking about his life as an observer, rather than a participant; how he can be seduced by surfaces; and how Cynthia Nixon changed how he responded to Dickinson’s poetry.
A played by Nixon, Davies gives us a Dickinson with both humor and backbone, passionate about her poetry and her family, shy yet caustic, and forever struggling with the nature of her soul. It is a performance as rich and as evocative as any of Dickinson’s poems, and as powerful. Davies telescopes time in pursuit of a narrative truth that mere reportage could never achieve, and leaves us with a story that is emotionally epic, if geographically limited. The film co-stars Jennifer Ehle as Dickinson’s sister, Vinnie; Duncan Duff as her brother, Austin; Jodhi May as her sister-in-law, Sarah; and Keith Carradine as her father. Davies directed from his own script, and his previous work includes THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, and DISTANT VOICES, STILL LIVES.